Economy, credibility likely factors in Everett school bond’s defeat

For the second time in two months, voters in the Everett School District have defeated a request for a $259 million bond issue, money that in part would have paid for two new schools and dozens of classrooms in a growing district.

For voters who have traditionally supported Everett’s bond and levy issues, the question is: Why?

There’s no polling to provide definitive information. So the answers vary from the economy, to the typical low voter turnout in special elections, to what some critics say is a credibility gap between the school district and voters.

Pam LeSesne, school board president, said the latest tally showing that 58.58 percent of voters said yes to the bond measure shows strong support for schools. Yet with the requirement for 60 percent approval for bond passage, it did not pass.

“The results are in,” she said. “It’s not what we expected. It is what our voters wanted, and we will respect that wish.”

School board member Caroline Mason said that of the 12 school bond or levy measures on the April 22 special election ballots statewide, just two appear to be passing, and another — Lakewood’s — appears to be squeaking through by a very narrow margin. “That suggests to me that part of this is the economic climate that we’re in today,” she said.

Board member Ted Wenta agreed that the economy could have contributed to a tough fight for bond issue approval. With household incomes that either have not grown, or shrunk, over the past few years, “it’s not a surprise,” he said.

Critics often pointed to the district’s new $28.3 million administration building, which opened in November, as a reason for their opposition, saying the money could have been better used to help pay for classroom improvements.

“I’m sure it had some effect on the outcome,” LeSesne said.

Wenta agreed. “I think it certainly shaped some people’s opinions,” he said. “We would be naive to think it did not.”

Kim Guymon, who founded the Everett School Board Project, a citizen watchdog group, said that voters in the school district have been very generous in their support of previous bond and levy measures. “I think the administration building is the elephant in the room,” she said.

School board member Traci Mitchell said she wouldn’t have any comment on the bond issue until the election is certified next month. Board member Carol Andrews could not be reached for comment.

After the failure of the bond issue in the Feb. 11 election, Guymon said she thought voters wanted some signal that the school district had gotten a message. Yet a few weeks later, the school board voted to put the same measure on the ballot in April.

“I think they made a fatal mistake pushing it back up so fast,” she said.

Wenta said he doesn’t have any second thoughts about putting the issue back on the ballot so quickly. The cost of construction projects — such as the proposed $89 million new high school — will only rise over the next few years, Wenta said.

“It really is pay now or pay later,” he said. “It will cost a whole lot more later, and the need does not go away.”

LeSesne said the school board heard from many people in the community that they wanted to see the bond up for another vote — quickly — rather than waiting until August or November.

The February bond received 58.13 percent of the vote, just shy of the required 60 percent.

“The message we received was, ‘Please do this again; it was so close,’ ” Mason said.

Rodman Reynolds, a school board critic, ran unsuccessfully for the school board last year. He said he thought that if the school board had delayed the bond vote until November and scaled down its size, that might have made the difference in its passage.

Reynolds said he would like to see the bond issue broken up into smaller, shorter-term projects of four to five years. That would allow voters to know “what you’ll do and when you’ll do it,” he said. “That would be a big step.”

LeSesne said smaller bond issues may be an option. “We may end up saying, ‘Let’s break it apart and find out what needs to be done now and what can wait,’ ” she said.

Guymon said she thinks the school board could increase its credibility by reaching out to the public, holding some town-hall-style meetings, changing school board meeting times from 4:30 p.m. to later in the evening so more people can attend, and having live webcasts of meetings.

Mason said she thinks the school district needs to have better plans for communicating with the public and keeping voters informed. “That’s not just at bond time,” she said. “It’s all the time.”

Wenta said the board has heard again and again from people that there is a feeling that it needs to do a better job of listening to constituents. “Having said that, we’re also elected to make some really difficult decisions,” he said.

LeSesne said she would consider holding a meeting with no agenda other than to listen to the public, but first would want to talk with other board members to see what they would like to do.

“There are some people who believe if you’re not doing what I say, you’re not listening to me,” she said. “You are listening, but you have to listen to the community as a whole.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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